Russell Letson Reviews The Best of Walter Jon Williams by Walter Jon Williams

The Best of Walter Jon Williams, Walter Jon Williams (Subterranean 978-1645240020, $45.00, 610pp, hc). Cover by Lee Moyer. Feb­ruary 2020.

Exactly 30 years ago, this column’s lede was “Walter Jon Williams is an interest­ingly various writer….” The intervening decades have given me no reason to alter that opinion, variations on which I have been re­peating just about every time I write about a Williams title. So why should I break the chain now? In 1991, when I drafted that review (of Days of Atonement), Williams had published seven SF novels and a collection of shorter work and was already a fully formed professional with a range stretching from the cyberpunk­ish and space-operatic, to alien encounters, to crime-caper/comedy-of-manners mashups. (Not counting five historical-nautical adven­tures as Jon Williams.) Since then, his output has expanded to encompass fantasies, disaster epics, alternate histories, pocket universes, near-future technothrillers, and less-easily-characterized subgeneric collisions, extensions, mutations, and transmogrifications.

Much of this variety is on display in The Best of Walter Jon Williams, a dozen stories stretching back to the 1980s, chosen by the author, with endnotes establishing contexts and origins and snippets of personal history. (Now we know where he gets at least some of those crazy ideas.) For those keeping score, this is Williams’s third collection, and half of its con­tents overlap with earlier volumes – three stories from Facets (1990) and three from The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories (2010).

Of the mixed-genre threads that run through Williams’s work, my personal favorites are the various flavors of thriller and crime story, which provide plot armatures while offering social ob­servations (comedic and otherwise) that would do Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Jane Austen proud (maybe P.G. Wodehouse as well). Five of the stories deploy one or another of this family, ranging from seriocomic murder mystery, to various kinds of caper, to intrigue/chase thriller, to comic-book costumed villains, to the noirish slice-of-criminal-life drama.

“Margaux” is the origin story of the Lady Sula of the Praxis series: how Gredel, a provincial girl from the underclass, came to impersonate an aristocrat. Despite the Praxis background, there is more of the slum-kid’s-progress than the space-operatic here – the lure of the interstellar-imperial high life could as well be 1920s New York or Paris beckoning to a teenager from the tough streets of Biloxi or Marseilles. “Video Star” is rather more hard-edged rogue’s progress: part caper, part Scarface (the De Palma version), with a nice biter-bit ending. “The Bad Twin” uses time travel to structure an elaborate caper, with two versions of a temporal agent competing to be the one who survives the repair of a deadly paradox. I confess that I needed a four-dimensional chart and pens of several different colors to keep track of the feints and traps and double-backs.

The oddest crime-based story is “The Golden Age”, a goofy tour-de-force that some­body will inevitably call “steampunk” thanks to its smooshing to­gether of an alternate Gold Rush California and comic-book tropes (Airships! Infernal de­vices! Secret identities! Costumes!) but I think it’s too wacky and un­inhibited for that label. Not as goofy, but with a distinct Elmore Leonard picaresque flavor is “Diamonds from Tequila”, in which the struggling ex-child-star protagonist of The Fourth Wall (2012) deals with an on-set murder, a drug cartel, Big Pharma, feature-film budgeting, and some new technology that could revolutionize segments of the straight and criminal worlds. Revolutionary tech is also at the heart of the entirely ungoofy “The Green Leopard Plague”, in which the future-ward present action frames a back-story amounting to an international thriller with assassinations and chases and a transformative-invention McGuf­fin. The framing story outlines the results of that invention: a world without scarcity or permanent mortality, which nevertheless does not do away with some of humankind’s nastier traits, and in fact allows a new way of enabling one of them.

That brings up another thing I notice about these stories: how, whatever marvels and benefits it might confer, miraculous technology does not erase our capacity for evil, let alone bad judg­ment or outright folly. “Daddy’s World” is a sobering corrective to those who look forward to the joys of life in a virtual world, free of the pains and limitations of the flesh. Be careful what you wish for – or wish upon others, especially if they’re unable to decline the offer.

Three stories run variations on encounters with aliens while unpicking the possible downsides of great material power. The humanity of very-far-future humankind is hard to spot in “Dinosaurs”, in which the aliens being rolled over are more like us-now than us-then. As the despairing alien head of government tells the hyperspecialized human diplomatic representative,

Your species doesn’t think about what it does any more. It just reacts, like a single-celled animal, engulfing everything it can reach. You say that you are a conscious species, but that isn’t true. Your every ac­tion is… instinct. Or reflex.

To which the reply is “I don’t understand.”

“Prayers on the Wind” struck me as a companion piece in which the visiting diplo­mat is a member of an aggressive, expansive species, and the human polity she is dealing with a star-spanning culture governed by a technologically-enhanced Buddhist theocracy that nominally practices peace and love (and maybe even some rock and roll) – and that also maintains a military that is not to be underes­timated. When the chief lama/absolute ruler is reincarnated (quite materially) as a follower of the Short Path to Enlightenment, hilarity ensues. Well, not hilarity – more like drunken, destructive disorder, followed by palace intrigue and diplomatic crises. It’s easily the strangest story in the volume.

“Surfacing”, which features two non-human and one terrestrial alien species (whales), is by comparison a psychological novella, since what drives the story is human unhappiness and emotional disorder – though one character’s problems are rooted in a condition only possible in a science-fictional world.

“Wall, Stone, Craft” doesn’t have a lick of the supernatural or scientifical. Instead, it ex­plores an alternate path by which Mary Shelley produces Frankenstein, while other historical figures enter from and exit in quite different directions. It’s a compelling set of character portraits, primarily of a Mary Godwin Shelley as perhaps she was – a tough cookie and notably smarter and more insightful than any of the men in her life – but Byron as he was emphatically not, and Bysshe more sympathetically portrayed than I might have anticipated.

A short note on “The Millennium Party”, the only selection shorter than novelette/no­vella length: it’s a kind of finger exercise that reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million”. (It is even shorter than Williams’s short author’s note on his short-short.)

I come away from this collection admiring not only Williams’s flexibility as a master of traditions and conventions and tropes, but also the way that these stories are not merely exercises or japes (though “The Golden Age” and “Prayers on the Wind” are plenty playful). When Williams takes on a genre, he also takes on the issues and tensions and themes such con­structs are meant to address. This is where craft crosses the fuzzy borderline and becomes art.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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